George Washington Papers

From George Washington to Vice Admiral d’Estaing, 13 September 1779

To Vice Admiral d’Estaing

Head Quarters West Point 13th Septr 1779


Having received intelligence which made it probable that a Squadron of his Most Christian Majesty was approaching our coast,1 I thought it my duty to meet you with the earliest advice of the situation of the Enemy in this quarter. Admiral Arbuthnot arrived at New York the 25th of last month with a reinforcement under his convoy, consisting from the best2 accounts I have been able to obtain of about three thousand men, mostly recruits and in bad health.3 This makes the land force of the Enemy at New York and its dependencies near fifteen thousand men, distributed in the following manner—on the Island of New York about 7,000—on Long Island about 5,000—on Staten Island about 1,000 at Kings ferry up the north river 45 miles from new York about 2,000—and a small garrison at Powles Hook a fortified peninsula on the Jersey Shore opposite the City—This distribution is agreeable to the last advices; but the Enemy’s disposition undergoes very frequent changes and may have since altered—They have been for some time past drawing a line of works across new York Island and have lately fortified Governors Island near the City—They have also works on Staten Island & are said to have begun a strong Fort at Brooklyn on Long Island.

The information4 of the naval force in the harbour of new York makes it, one seventy four—one sixty four—two fifty’s & two or three frigates with a few small armed Vessels. The land force at Rhode Island is estimated between three and four thousand—There may be one or two frigates there.5

Sir George Collier sailed some time since on an expedition to the Eastward of Boston—The force with him was composed of one Vessel of the line, one fifty four6 gun Ship and several smaller frigates and armed Vessels—He has completed his object; but I have not heard of his return.7

If it is your Excellency’s intention to operate against the Enemy at new York it will be infinitely interesting that you should immediately enter the harbour and make such dispositions as will be best calculated to prevent a reunion of their force at a single point, which would make their reduction a matter of no small difficulty. If your Excellency has a land force you will be able to judge in what manner it may be most usefully employed to intercept the detachments on Long and Staten Islands—From the situation of the former relatively to new York, it will not be easy to intercept the troops there because the Enemy can throw their Troops from one to the other at pleasure; and your Ships could not conveniently lie in the East river to cut off the communication. It is not improbable the Enemys fleet will endeavour to take shelter in this river. It will also be of importance to run two or three frigates up the north river into Haverstraw Bay to obstruct the retreat of the garrisons at Kings ferry by water; and I should be happy these frigates may announce themselves by firing a number of guns in quick succession which will put it in my power to push down a body of troops below the garrisons on the East side to intercept a retreat by land to Kings Bridge8—This will also answer the purpose of giving me earlier advice of your arrival than I could obtain in any other way. But some caution will be necessary in the passage of these frigates up the River, as there have been some cheveaux de frise sunk opposite Fort Washington which has given a partial obstruction to the channel—Your Excellency will probably be able to capture some Seamen who will be acquainted with the navigation of the river in its present state.

To prevent the retreat of any part of the Enemy through the Sound it would be useful to detach a few ships round to take a convenient station there—These may answer another object, to hinder the evacuation of Rhode Island—either to form a junction with the main body or withdraw to a place of security & avoid falling into your hands—The detachment for this purpose need not be greater than to be a full match for Sir George Collier.

I have taken the liberty to throw out these hints for Your Excellency’s information & permit me to intreat that you will favor me as soon as possible with an account of your Excellency’s intentions and the land force under your command which will help me to judge what additional succour it may be expedient to draw from the country and what other measures ought to be taken for a perfect co-operation—I also intreat your Excellency’s sentiments on the manner of this cooperation and you may depend upon every exertion in my power to promote the success of an enterprise from which such decisive advantages may be expected to the common cause—I sincerely congratulate you on your glorious victories in the West Indies, in which no one takes greater interest than myself as well as from motives of personal attachment as a concern for the common cause.9 I have the honor to be With the most perfect respect & esteem Your Excellencys Most obedient & Very hum. Servant.10

L, marked “Duplicate” and in Richard Kidder Meade’s writing, PWacD: Sol Feinstone Collection, on deposit at PPAmP; Df, DLC:GW; copy, DLC: Alexander Hamilton Papers; Varick transcript, DLC:GW.

These “hints” represent GW’s initial plan for a limited “co-operation” with d’Estaing’s fleet; for his later and more complex plans, see Planning for an Allied Attack on New York, c.3–7 October.

2On the draft, this word is underlined.

3GW is referring to the 3,800 British army troops that had arrived at New York on 25 Aug. with the naval squadron of Vice Adm. Marriot Arbuthnot (see GW to Jay, 24–27 Aug., and n.8 to that document). For GW’s defensive preparations for the arrival of this reinforcement, see GW to Jay, 11 Aug., n.5.

4The draft, in Alexander Hamilton’s writing, has “best information.”

5Much of GW’s information about enemy dispositions and activities in and around New York City seems to have come from Lt. Col. John Taylor, who wrote to GW on 30 Aug. and 5 September.

6The draft has “forty four” written above the crossed-out number “50.”

7For Cdre. George Collier’s expedition to Penobscot Bay, Maine, see GW to the Massachusetts Council, 3 Aug., n.3.

8For GW’s orders to his division commanders for this operation to “intercept” the King’s Ferry garrisons, see GW to William Heath and to Robert Howe, both this date; GW to Heath, 14 Sept., and n.2 to that document; and GW to Stirling, 14 Sept.; see also GW to Horatio Gates and to Anthony Wayne, both 14 September. GW canceled this operation on 18 Sept. when he concluded that the intelligence reports on d’Estaing’s imminent arrival were unfounded (see GW to Heath and to Howe, both 18 Sept.).

9For d’Estaing’s capture of the West Indian islands of St. Vincent and Grenada and his indecisive naval engagement with British vice admiral John Byron off Grenada, see Jay to GW, 10 Aug., and n.1 to that document.

10The draft includes this postscript: “P.S. Major Lee who will have the honor of delivering these dispatches is an officer of intelligence and judgment in whose information your Excellency may place great confidence. He will be happy to execute any orders with which you may be pleased to honor him.” GW sent the LS, which has not been found, with his letter to Maj. Henry Lee, Jr., of this date, ordering Lee to proceed to Monmouth County, N.J., to await the Frenchman’s arrival off Sandy Hook. Lee spent the remainder of the autumn in that area, but d’Estaing never arrived, and, on 20 Dec., GW wrote to Lee and asked him to return this letter to headquarters (DLC:GW).

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